The following was inspired by a series of events on Facebook yesterday that has finally put me "over the edge" on the issue of free marketing on social networks...
There is a growing epidemic on Facebook that is following a path already traversed by yesteryear's e-mail. Spam is beginning to show up, in multiple ways, on the Facebook news feed. This spam consists of several variations, of which I will specifically discuss two.
The first is "application spam". When a user downloads an application, be it "Mafia Wars", "What State Are You?", or "Grow a Facebook Garden", typically the application seeks information from your wall. Usually, the user is warned of this beforehand. Of course, the obvious question is why. Why would an application need to know your e-mail address, AIM username, education, favorite quotes, and personal biography? The answers are many, and most of them are not desirable. Phishing is a common problem ailing Facebook these days. Only recently, Facebook has gone on the defensive, with several public announcements showing the social network's resolve to find and evict such undesirable behavior.
What does this undesirable behavior include? Well, some applications have an "option" to suggest the application to friends of the user. (Note, by the way, the difficulty in finding the "Skip" button for these pop-ups.) Phishing applications will then use this information to post "advertisements" on the walls, many of which are completely false, or at the very least misleading. These advertisements appear on the walls of the selected friends as well, whether they have accepted the application or not.
A corollary of the phishing wall post is the inundation of application e-mails. An example was the "SpeedDate" application, which notified a user via e-mail and Facebook notification daily or multiple times daily of interested users, almost always being rather skullduggerous in nature (in terms of the people interested or the links provided). This application was recently removed by Facebook for its "fishy" ("phishy?") activities.
A second corollary is the inundation of "news feeds" regarding use of applications by particular users. Personally, I couldn't care less which state you would most likely be happy in, or how your character is doing in a Dungeons and Dragons rip-off, or how many fish are growing in your e-quarium. But the application news feeds are trying to obtain more users. Why? The applications are free to use (mostly). Why would the applications care if more users became members? Certainly, there is money at work here. If some users like the application so well, they may want to check out the website or company responsible for it. And so on. Application "news feeds" are quickly approaching textbook spam.
A separate form of spam occurring on Facebook news feeds is personal free advertising. When a person creates a product and recommends buying that product using the Facebook news feed, they are advertising to their friends in "bulk manner". This is textbook spam, except maybe for one caveat. The caveat is that you personally select the news feeds of other users. E-mail spam is purely unsolicited. The user does not sign up for the bulk e-mails and has no way of removing his/her name from the e-mail list other than by blocking the user. This is not true with the Facebook news feeds.
However, this does not preclude the free advertising found on news feeds from being categorized as spam. How many people have experienced the "obsessive forwarder"? A rather annoying problem in the e-mail world, when a person forwards e-mail after e-mail, often with the phrase "You will die today if you do not immediately send this to ten of your friends" or something similar. Often, the forward contains a list of bad jokes, political propaganda, or blatantly false computer information. Though this forwarding may not qualify as the textbook definition of spam, it is definitely in the spirit of unsolicited bulk e-mail. Not many people seek out ten forwards a day of things spread like a virus throughout the interwebs, purposefully misinforming them or failing to entertain them.
Along the same vein, the Facebook free advertising in news feeds is quickly becoming the "obsessive forwarding" that plagued the e-mail world 5-10 years ago. A person informing others of the work they are doing, the products they are making, or the services they are providing is not spamming. A person seeking out their friends to buy their products, for free, using the Facebook news feed, in which the list of users cannot control the feed without explicitly removing them from that list, is spamming his or her users. It is the same as receiving a mass e-mail from a friend in their e-mail address book, in which that friend asks the recipients to buy their products. This is not what the e-mail list, or Facebook list, of "friends" ask for when they sign up to be included in these lists.
Fortunately, Facebook allows for two alternatives, one of which is costly and one of which is not. You can advertise on Facebook, for a charge. Or, you can sign up as a user of a company, organization, or corporation. This allows users to become fans of the relevant user, in which they can sign up for the news feed of that company, organization, or corporation. In essence, this is solicited bulk e-mail, which is not spam. A fairly simple solution to a fairly annoying problem.
Spam is an unwanted inevitability of social networks. However, just because your friends are doing it does not disqualify it as to what it is. Unsolicited bulk messages that solicit its recipients is spam, no matter what genre of interwebs you are using. A "social network" or not, spam is spam. And if we allow spam to percolate further into the depths of whatever we are using on the interwebs, the "news feeds" will defeat their own purpose of informing users of what they actually want to know.